How Multitasking at Work Can Slow You Down

At any given time, are you trying to juggle lots of projects at work? If so, you could be decreasing your output, recent research suggests.

Researchers Decio Coviello, Andrea Ichino and Nicola Persico studied a group of Italian judges who were randomly assigned cases and who had similar workloads, in terms of the quantity and type of cases they were assigned. The researchers' findings? The judges who worked on fewer cases at a time tended to complete more cases per quarter and took less time, on average, to complete a case. (You can read more about the authors' findings in their recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, "Don't Spread Yourself Too Thin: The Impact of Task Juggling on Workers' Speed of Job Completion.")

That doesn't mean all multitasking at work is ineffiicient. In earlier research into information-worker productivity in an executive recruiting company, Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne found that the level of multitasking matters. Their findings in that study suggested that, for the recruiters, working on more projects in one time period at first increased productivity, as measured by revenue generation. But as the level of multitasking increased, the marginal benefits of additional multitasking declined -- and, at a certain point, taking on still more tasks made workers less productive rather than more so.

Aral, Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne essentially suggested that excessive multitasking may result in the workflow equivalent of a traffic jam, where projects get backed up behind other projects much the way cars get stuck in traffic when there are too many on a highway at once. (You can read a brief summary of their findings in "What Makes Information Workers Productive," an article from the Winter 2008 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.)

So perhaps the real question to ask yourself is: Am I multitasking so much that it's significantly slowing my completion of tasks?

14 Comments On: How Multitasking at Work Can Slow You Down

  • Miguel Moreno Rico | December 16, 2010

    as an information worker I have experienced the advantages of not having very strictly defined roles, however I also have experienced as an employee and manager the disadvantages of excessive multitasking. very interesting article.

  • John Mindiola III | December 16, 2010

    Multitasking can make a worker more successful. Unitasking can make the work more successful.

  • Sheri Hendricks | December 16, 2010

    Interesting article and it backs up what others are discovering as well. The oft maligned practice of having focus seems to be making a strong comeback.

  • Aina Adebambo | December 17, 2010

    Multitasking should not viewed singularly; it is a function of capability. Every worker is capable of multitasking effectively. This goes on until he gets to his “carrying capacity”; above which decline sets in. What is most important, for me, is identifying each employee’s “carrying capacity” as we encourage him to multitask.

  • taboy74 | December 20, 2010

    Not all people are alike. Some are good in multi-tasking some are simply not born with it. I disagree that it slows you down. It could result however to a sub par quality of the work as compared to its counterpart.

  • Jason | December 21, 2010

    This seems to be a problem that is getting worse instead of better with modern technology. We are able to open dozens of browser windows and work on dozens of projects at a time, the problem is the rate at which we get them completed begins to slow down and the quality seems to suffer as well. We have initiated a policy here that allows our employees to focus on only one project at a time and the results have been amazing…we should have done it years ago

  • Andrew McFarland | December 22, 2010

    From DWT (driving while texting) to walking while chewing gum we have proved that multi-tasking is the domain of those in the throes of max denial and supreme hubris.

    I posted on this topic (with links to interesting driving stats) earlier this year: The Secret to Accomplishing More http://bit.ly/cc6Ykl

  • Harshul Pandit | December 22, 2010

    Multitasking – I would rather define it as , “conditinal” where the limit can be identify and set using set of psychological questions. If anybody knows about threshold energy curve then you may able to learn and extrapolate better. Upto certain level, multitasking increases productivity in terms of quality and efficiency, BUT the moment you cross the threshold limit, it eventually turn up to become detrimental for your subordinates and projects. This ‘threshold limit’ is circumstancial.

  • Produktivitätsverlust durch Multi-Tasking « Wissensarbeiters Weblog | January 8, 2011

    [...] auch im Management ist es gern gesehen, möglichst viele Vorgänge parallel am Laufen zu halten. Untersuchungen zeigen allerdings, was jeder schon oft am eigenen Leib erfahren hat: zu viele parallele Aufgaben [...]

  • Dave Crenshaw | March 16, 2011

    stop multitasking and focus to one task at a time to improve your productivity…

  • Golfizta | March 28, 2011

    Depends of you, i felt more confortable one task a time….

  • Five Focus Points for Agile Teams | Agile Communicator | May 4, 2011

    [...] This is all about giving your full focus and attention to the work you do.  While it isn’t necessary about multi-tasking in general it is about focusing on the right stuff at the right time.  If you’re interested in a short fun look at impacts of multi-tasking, read this blog and see if you can relate –  or another one [...]

  • Confessions Of A Multitasker | | 200KFREELANCER200KFREELANCER | January 24, 2012

    [...] In an article for MIT’s Sloan Review, Martha E. Mangelsdorf summarized research that said Italian judges who focused on one case at a time completed more cases per quarter than those who multitasked. On the other hand, she also found research suggesting that information workers who did more projects in one time period increased their productivity, as measured by revenue generation. “But as the level of multitasking increased, the marginal benefits of additional multitasking declined — and, at a certain point, taking on still more tasks made workers less productive rather than more so,” she wrote. [...]

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